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IT WAS A QUIET TUESDAY AFTERNOON LAST AUGUST when Michael Kay, a New York City radio host, asked Eli Manning the questions that would end up, in some ways, defining the then-30-year-old Giants quarterback's 2011 season. "Is Eli Manning an elite quarterback?" Kay asked Manning on the air. "Are you a top five, top 10 quarterback?"
"Yeah, I think I am," Manning said at the start of a lengthy response.
Then Kay came again: "Are you in the Tom Brady class?"
A deep breath from Manning. "Yeah, I consider myself in that class."
They were responses that might have immediately disappeared into the atmosphere had they been uttered by almost any other longtime quarterback in the history of professional football in New York. The words might have been considered amusing bravado had they been delivered by Joe Namath. The result of clear-eyed analysis, had they come from Phil Simms. A sign of admirable confidence, even, if articulated by the young Jet Mark Sanchez.
In eight seasons in New York, though, Manning has always been something of a cipher, in a town that clamors for stars with larger-than-life—or at least clearly definable—personalities. He has never seemed fazed enough, or even fazed at all, by being Peyton Manning's little brother and that he must live in Peyton Manning's shadow. He has never really lashed out when he has been criticized, which has happened frequently. (Tiki Barber, his former teammate, once deemed on national television Manning's attempt at a pregame speech "almost comical.") Nor has he seemed to care much when praise has been lavished on him, which has happened less frequently than he has deserved.
Manning, in fact, has been maddeningly consistent in his ability to avoid saying anything at all that might give the editors of New York's tabloids reason to break out the big back-page fonts. Even when unfairly slighted, he has seemed entirely comfortable letting others concoct his career's narrative for him: from promising No. 1 NFL draft pick, to inconsistent youngster, to Super Bowl MVP and champion not because of his ability to elude the Patriots' pass rush but because of David Tyree's pinning Manning's thrown football to his helmet, to mistake-prone veteran whose propensity for blundering would never allow him to close the gap on his older brother. Never mind that at the dawn of the 2011 season Eli Manning was one of just six active quarterbacks (including the injured Peyton) with a championship on his résumé or that he had thrown more career touchdowns than all but five other Week 1 starters or that he trailed only Simms on the Giants' alltime passing list in yards and completions.
So when Manning, baited by Kay, allowed himself to even hint at a desire to take some control of that narrative, the New York media ran with it, flogged it and then flogged it some more. Yards of column inches were devoted to comparing Eli with Brady, with Aaron Rodgers, with Drew Brees, and even, not always favorably, with Sanchez. The games of the 2011 season became not only rife with challenges for Manning and the injury-scarred Giants, but also a weekly referendum as to Manning's place in the pecking order of quarterbacks.
On Jan. 24, twenty-three Tuesdays after that appearance on The Michael Kay Show and 12 days before he was to start his second Super Bowl, Manning was asked by a reporter if he regretted what he had said about being among the elite.
"No, I don't," Manning said. "I gave an honest answer. I didn't regret it at the time or think anything of it at the time. It's been made into a big deal, but I can't always control that. I'm worried about getting ready to play this game and going out there and play my best football and get the team to play our best football. That's my job. My job is to play the game. It's your job to talk and make up stories."